Primary ballots give Montana voters a chance to re-think their local government structures

Montana primary ballots up for consideration this year will offer voters a unique opportunity to audit the structures and powers of their city and county governments.This local government review appears as a “study commission question” toward the end of ballot forms. Most urban voters will see two entries — one for city and one for county governments.JUSTICE KAGAN BLOCKS EFFORT TO STOP MONTANA FROM MAILING BALLOTS TO ALL VOTERSSet forth in the Montana Constitution, this voter-initiated review is offered every 10 years in all 56 counties and 127 incorporated municipalities. Any jurisdiction where voters approve the review in the June 4 primary election will kick off a two-year process examining the ways that cities and counties define their governments.Reviews focus on legislative powers, which are held by a city council, county board of commissioners or similar elected group. Also up for review are executive branch functions, which includes hiring staff and running daily operations of the city or county. Perhaps most importantly, reviews can shift the balance of power between the two branches.”This is all an experiment,” said Dan Clark, director of the Local Government Center at Montana State University. “There’s no right or wrong. If this isn’t working as well as they’d like it to, what might work better? And let’s try it.”A review can lead to small changes, like setting new terms for elected officials or designating ward-by-ward versus at-large representation. It can also restructure the top tier of the government operation, laid out in state statute as “forms.”Variations of those forms include a commission-executive, in which a city council and mayor serve legislative and executive functions, respectively. An alternative is the commission-manager form, in which the elected legislative body appoints a city manager to handle executive functions. A charter form of government is also an option, giving governments more latitude to define the details and duties of the government and its staff.There is also a town meeting form, which is only available to towns with less than 2,000 people. The residents of voting age make up the legislative branch, and a quorum is reached if 10 percent of that population attends a meeting. Clark said that Pinesdale, with fewer than 1,000 residents in the Bitterroot Valley, operates this way.If voters approve a review for a particular government on June 4, a study commission will be elected this November to review potential changes to local governance and suggest solutions. Residents who are eligible to hold elected office in their jurisdiction can file to join the commission. After nearly two years of study, the commission suggests changes, and voters have the chance to accept or reject the commission’s proposals.The process is funded by a property tax levy, usually collecting an amount in the low six figures. Local governments were required to approve a suggested funding level earlier this year. Any unused funds return to the government’s general fund.Historically, Montana cities and counties going through change, such as population growth, are more likely to undergo a local government review as their needs evolve.”Some communities will be content with their form of government. They haven’t experienced a lot of change,” Clark said. “Other communities might feel the need to make that change. There’s growth. They’re getting bigger, more complex, and maybe looking to different structures that might meet the challenges they might make into the future.”One recent example came out of a review that Bozeman voters approved in 2004. After the two-year study, voters approved a city charter in 2006 that created the city charter, formalized neighborhood councils, and approved the direct election of the mayor. Another proposal that came out of this review, a suggestion to bring the number of City Commission members to seven, failed in a subsequent vote in 2010.This year, Bozeman is the site of some organizing in support of a city government review. An effort by a group called Represent Bozeman has the support of former Mayor Carson Taylor, as well as current Deputy Mayor Joey Morrison. In a public forum earlier this week, Morrison told an audience that he supports a change in the pathway to the mayor’s office, according to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. The current city charter has elected mayors to serve two years as deputy before taking over the mayoral position. Morrison is currently in his first year of that process after being elected in 2023.Represent Bozeman is led by Bozeman Tenants United, which supported Morrison’s mayoral bid.Organizer Emily LaShelle said the group supports a vote in favor of local government review with a few goals. The first is ward elections and representation for city commission members rather than at-large positions. She said the group hears from renters in northeast Bozeman who don’t feel seen by commissioners who often come from the more affluent neighborhoods.”In a lot of ways, the reason the tenants union took this on is that so many of the working-class Bozemanites feel deeply unrepresented by the local government,” she said.Represent Bozeman also supports full-time City Commission positions, which she said would support more working-class representation.LaShelle said the group also wants to shift the power dynamics between elected officials and appointed city staff. This stems in part from the troubled exit of former City Manager Jeff Mihelich, who accepted severance earlier this year after a leaked video showed him making disparaging comments about commissioners and their work.Bozeman’s city charter directs city staff to carry out much of the legislation that comes from the City Commission, which LaShelle said leaves too little room for elected officials to carry out their work and creates a barrier against public accountability.”It makes it harder for regular people to make change,” she said. “There are so many incredible groups in Bozeman to make change. But the current system is outdated and makes it really hard for the people in Bozeman for real democracy to happen.”A similar effort pushing for local government review is taking place in Billings. David Goodridge is a commercial Realtor and broker who said he learned about the mechanism after years of frustration about the pace of action at the Billings City Council.Goodridge voted against the measure in 2014. Back then, he said, he looked at the prospect of an additional, yearslong government commission that cost six figures and didn’t like the idea. He says now that he voted against the very instrument that could bring the change he wanted to see at the council.”My goal for the last eight months has been to try, from a grassroots position, to educate as many people as I can to not be afraid of this ballot item,” Goodridge said. “It’s a good thing.”This time around, his effort is called “Get To Yes.” The basic idea is to bring awareness to this down-ballot item and advocate for a vote to get the process started.Like LaShelle, Goodridge feels that Billings’ City Council has ceded too much power to appointed staff.”The question I ask a lot of people in presentations is: who do you think is applying vision to the community? Elected leaders or the bureaucracy?” Goodridge said.He also wants to see the mayor as a full-time position in Montana’s largest city and wants resources for council members to devote more time to their public roles.”An elected person only has whatever time they have available to them to dive in and understand a complex zone change, a complex staffing issue, an infrastructure problem,” he said. “If all the time they have is just what they have in volunteer time, 10 to 20 hours isn’t going to cut it.”Goodridge said he has received some monetary support from the Billings Association of Realtors and some in-kind donations for website development and marketing materials, though in total it amounts to less than $2,000. While he has a wish list for his preferred local government structure, his main goal is to secure voter approval for a review process on June 4.Clark, with MSU’s Local Government Center, said that the intent of the process is not to be a referendum on the actions or policies of elected officials. It’s more about how the government operates regardless of who holds office or staff positions.In Billings, Goodridge said he has been waiting 10 years to get this chance to rally voters behind a review.LaShelle hasn’t been waiting for another review since the 2004 study led to a brand new city charter. But she sees different needs for Bozeman 20 years later.”It’s changed a lot since then,” she said. “And I think maybe the city charter worked for that Bozeman, but it’s certainly not working now. I don’t think we can wait another 10 years.”
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